THE RIGHT ROAD TO CHURCH UNITY
Throughout the centuries believers have expressed their faith in the existence of one, holy, catholic church. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The oneness of the church belongs to the things not seen. This faith is grounded in the Scriptures. The Heidelberg Catechism presents the unity of the church in these words: “The Son of God gathers, defends and preserves for Himself, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of faith, a Church.” The Belgic Confession also emphasizes the unity of the church, for we read: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. this holy Church is not confined, bound or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same Spirit.” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit is building one church.
This church becomes visible by confession. The believer is commanded by his Lord to confess before men. He must witness for him. This church organizes for the purpose of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of discipline. And the church should manifest its unity in this organization and witnessing. This, however, is not the case. This is deplorable, and consequently there must be a searching for the cause and the cure of the lack of this unity of the visible church.
It is a well known fact that Christians differ greatly in their interpretation of the Scriptures. Here is one who declares that Jesus died for all men, making salvation possible for all, while on the other hand there are those who are convinced that the Bible tells us Christ died only for those whom the Father has given him, that salvation is not only made possible by Christ but is from start to finish the work of the Triune God.
Some have blamed the Bible for this. It has been said that the Bible is obscure and thus open to various interpretations. But as Reformed believers we affirm that since God is the author of the Scriptures and certainly knows how to communicate with creatures which came forth out of his hand, the message of the Scriptures is clear. This does not mean that there are no difficulties in interpreting the Bible. There are mysteries here which the human mind cannot fathom. But we may be sure of this, that the Bible has only one message! This message is presented so clearly that the psalmist can rightly declare, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
We should resist every effort to mold the Bible to make it acceptable to man. The Vatican announced that Pope Paul VI has given orders for the Roman Catholic Church to work with Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox Catholics to produce a common Bible for all Christians. This is a dream of the ecumenical movement to bring all the Christian churches under one roof.
The cause of the divisions in the visible and organized church is not to he found in the Word of God. It lies with man. Even though we have been born again and have become new creatures, the results of sin and sin itself are still present. Sin stands in the way of a perfect understanding and application of the revelation which God has given us. And 50 we find a sincere child of God standing in opposition to another sincere child of God.
There are those who advise Christians to forget about the differences of interpretation and application and concentrate upon the things in which they agree. Of course, we ought to be happy about every manifestation of the fundamental unity of the Christian Church. But to advocate a forgetting about Our differences is bad advice. It is not true that what divides us is of lesser importance than that which reveals a fundamental unity. Christians are divided on the meaning of the cross of Christ, the one saying that the sacrifice of Christ is for all men while the other maintaining that the atonement is limited.
It is not right to say to one another, “Let us forget about our differences.” We should remember that when a true and sincere Christian insists on the physical presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper, he believes that God has plainly said this in His Word. No one may come to him and say, “Forget about this!” As long as he is convinced that God has thus spoken, he may not forget about it.
The only attempt to bring about the unification of the visible and organized church which is justified is that of trying to convince one another. And this should be done. But we should not forget that because of sin and its effects in the life of the Christian, we shall not arrive at perfect interpretation and united conviction.
And this is not the road of frustration and hopelessness. Remember the demand of Christ: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We know that in this life we shall not attain that perfection. Yet we say with the apostle Paul, “One thing I do. I am constantly busy to reach the goal of perfection, which God requires of me!” Nor is this the road of despair; it is the avenue of hope. The constant struggle for perfection finds it reward in our transformation after the image of Christ; in our constant advance on the road of sanctification.
So it is with our search for unity in the visible church: a constant conversation and disputation about the things which Cod has revealed. The history of the Church reveals plainly that also in this way there is progress in the understanding of God’s revelation. And some day we all shall know as we are known!
MACHEN’S CHALLENGE TO PROSPECTIVE MINISTERS
Three months before Dr. J. Gresham Machen, admirable and outspoken defender of the Gospel, was constrained because of his loyalty to the Christ of the Scriptures to leave Princeton Theology Seminary, he delivered an address to his students who were preparing for the Christian ministry. He urged them to recognize clearly the cleavage between historic Christianity and its popularized perversion in classroom and pulpit. Although the shapes of heresy have somewhat changed in their appearance and address, the words of Machen are as much needed today as then.
“You will have a battle when you go forth as ministers into the church. The church is now in a period of deadly conflict. The redemptive religion known as Christianity is contending, in our own Presbyterian Church and in all the larger churches in the world. against a totally alien type of religion. As always, the enemy conceals his most dangerous assaults under pious phrases and half truths. The shibboleths of the adversary have sometimes a very deceptive sound. ‘Let us propagate Christianity: the adversary says. ‘but let us not always be engaged in arguing in defense of it; let us make our preaching positive, and not negative; let us avoid controversy; let us hold to a person and not to a dogma; let us sink small doctrinal differences and seek the unity of the church of Christ; let us drop doctrinal accretions and interpret Christ for ourselves; let us look for our knowledge of Christ, not to ancient books, but to the living Christ in our hearts; let us not impose Western creed on the Eastern mind; let us be tolerant of opposing views.’
“Such are some of the shibboleths of that agnostic Modernism which is the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion today. They deceive some of God’s people some of the time; they are heard sometimes from the lips of good Christian people. who have not the slightest inkling of what they mean. But their true meaning, to thinking men, is becoming increasingly clear. Increasingly, it is becoming necessary for a man to decide whether he is going to stand or not to stand for the Lord Jesus Christ as He is presented to us in the Word of God.
“If you decide to stand for Christ, you will not have an easy life in the ministry. Of course, you may try to evade the conflict. All men will speak well of you if, after preaching no matter how unpopular a Gospel on Sunday, you will only vote against the Gospel in the councils of the Church the next day; you will graciously be permitted to believe in supernatural Christianity all you please if you will only make common cause with its opponents. Such is the program that will win the favor of the church. A man may believe what he pleases, provided he does not believe anything strongly enough to risk his life on it and fight for it.”